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Transcript from IMKC "Ageism in the Time of Coronavirus"

Kimberlé Crenshaw: COVID-19 has changed everything, halting life as we know it in its tracks. To respond to this global pandemic and to adapt to this new way of life, we’re doing things a bit more DIY than usual. We’re not in the studio and we’re dispersed all over the country, but we did want to respond to the urgent need for information, bringing to you the voices some of the leading experts to help us grapple with the new and not-so-new dimensions of this crisis.

Ageism is one of those isms that impacts all of us at some point. But oddly enough, it's the one that most people don't really think about. And when I've thought about it myself, I've thought about moments in my family's life, my mother's life, in which I very much felt that her skills and her authority in her job were being undermined. Because she was perceived as an older teacher as opposed to someone that had 40 years of expertise and had many generations of students that she'd successfully mentored.

And I've seen ageism play out in medical settings. I've seen it play out even in death, when unknown causes of the death of older people don't prompt any desire to actually find out what happened. Because after all, they're older.

I think though, having seen and heard how ageism is playing out in this moment in quips that suggests, for example, that COVID is a baby boomer remover. I suspect some people were probably thinking about some baby boomers, namely one who lives in the white house or one who's running for president. What it definitely reflects is the failure to recognize that those baby boomers and older who are most at risk are those who are people of color, those who have worked their entire lives for other people. And retire without benefits or without housing security to actually be able to shelter in place safely, to ride this out. When we use these frames that denigrate one part of our population thinking that they're represented by those who are most powerful or most dominant, in that we are repeating the same kind of erasure and marginalization that intersectionality was designed to address in the first place.

So here's another place where we take intersectional thinking. If we know this is part of an unrecognized dimension of social disempowerment, ageism, what happens when we think about how it intersects with other forms of disempowerment like racism and patriarchy, and heterosexism. They're playing out in front of our very eyes as the COVID virus wreaks havoc. So we thought it was important for us to pause and really take a deep dive into what the face of the intersection of ageism and race and class actually looks like.

My first guest, Ashton Applewhite, is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn. She is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, and has been recognized by the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, and the American Society on Aging as a leading expert on ageism, or discrimination on the basis of age.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So Ashton, we're in the middle of a global pandemic. If we think and look and understand, we might be able to come out of this with a better understanding of ageism, its various functions and how it operates. But just as a start, what's a series of images or things you've heard that are your point of departure for thinking about this?

Ashton Applewhite: Well, I have to say I'm recording this from my house in busy Brooklyn and for once in my life I don't have to worry about trucks rolling by and sirens, which is great but creepy. I also watched just half an hour ago some footage from an emergency room in Italy, which is being used as an intensive care unit. Italy paradoxically is one of the oldest in terms of average population age and least ageist Western countries. The generations mix, which is one reason the infection rates are so high.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow.

Ashton Applewhite: Yeah. But that of course does not explain or justify the high mortality, which is that we are unprepared and we should've taken better measures. I live in New York, which is about to become the global epicenter of this. We are woefully underprepared. And there is no doubt in my mind that pervasive ageism, and I have to say ableism right on its heels, is a huge reason globally for our laxness. This doctrine, wash your hands, stay six feet apart from people, but don't worry too much because only old people and people with chronic illnesses are going to be affected. So people didn't worry.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And, let's dive in right there because I think this is an important moment and point of departure for us to understand- you'll be fine as long as you do these things because it mostly impacts old people or people with underlying health conditions. So if we were to say what is ageist about that, what would we say?

Ashton Applewhite: We are being ageist anytime we make an assumption about someone or a group of people on the basis of age. And it can be young people too, kids are like that, whatever. So it really affects everyone. But we live in a youth-obsessed consumer-driven society that we sell stuff by showing beautiful young people to everyone and commercializing youth. And at its ugly heart, and it pains me even to say out loud, but is the idea that to age is to lose value as a human being. And at the heart of ableism is the notion that if you are less than physically perfect, I mean frankly the further we deviate from thin, white male, the further down the food chain you are, the harder it is to be seen, to have privilege, to have equity. As you know better than anyone, all prejudice operates to pit us against each other. In the case of ageism, old against young. It's not helpful to break it down that way. We are all in this together, boy.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah. Well speaking of breaking down, we've been seeing memes that suggest this virus might be best thought of as the boomer remover. So there’s that. And then there's the reality that decisions are now being made about who lives and who dies on the basis of age. How should we be thinking about all of these things right now?

Ashton Applewhite: Progressives are always at a disadvantage because we will honestly admit that it's complicated. The death of an 80-year-old person is sad, especially if it was preventable and sad and wrong. If that person's life could have been saved and the decision was not made simply on the basis of the assumption that who cares about them or they had shitty quality of life. However, the death of an 80-year-old is less tragic on some level, some absolute level. Than the death of an 18-year-old because they have experienced more of what life has to offer. But it doesn't mean that the loss of anyone you love or who is loved by other people isn't a terrible source of grief. And to lose it in this way alone, alone, alone, on the floor in some barracks surrounded by people suffocating to death in a way that could have been prevented is unthinkably terrible.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: The imagery that you just painted for us really reminded me of the image from hurricane Katrina that still makes it impossible for me actually really get through a sentence. There was a picture of somebody's mother, grandmother in a wheelchair with a blanket over because she had died there and that often gets dismissed as, well, she was older or she had underlying health conditions, all those things being true. But the conditions of her death are the things that can be changed. That didn't have to be. And too much of the focus on the former absolves people and our society from the conditions that hastened her demise. That makes me worry about what's happening now. The fact that it is disproportionately older people that I think allows folks to absolve us from the manmade dimensions of this disaster.

Ashton Applewhite: Beautifully put, I couldn't say it better. Older people and people with underlying conditions would die at higher rates even in the socialist non-racist, non-agency, non-ableist paradise of our dreams. That's biology, but not in these numbers. These numbers are preventable. When I think about that term, boomer remover, really? Did they spring from Zeus's forehead? They probably have mothers. They probably have grandmothers. If they stopped to think, I know that's a big ask in Trump's America. Do they really, really want their parents to be dead on their neighbors to be dead? I don't think so. I think they haven't stopped to think.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So I wonder if you think, Ashton, if as this was starting to travel around the world and the demographic that was most readily identified as being most at risk was either a younger demographic. Initially, a wider demographic or a wealthier demographic, would the preparation have looked different than it currently does?

Ashton Applewhite: Hell yes. And don't take it from me, take it from the director general of the World Health Organization and look at my twitter feed at This Chair Rocks for the citation. I don't have it in front of me. Literally saying ageism responsible for lax- I mean he cited a number of countries and it's assumed that the United States was among them. Ageism as a driving factor behind the lax response.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And you know, we've been talking about the intersections of aging and race. I'm also interested in your thoughts about the intersections of aging and patriarchy of age and gender. Because one of the things that I've started to think about is the fact that women tend to be less partnered the older they get as opposed to men. Now we're at a moment where lack of partnering is potentially lethal. We're looking at an extended lockdown. A lot of people are isolated, don't have access to just human contact. I think folks don't have a way of seeing that as also socially constructed as well. Not just a matter of choice and not just a matter of, oh well men die sooner. But a matter ofolder women are less valuable.

Ashton Applewhite: We make less money. We are penalized for time out of the workforce, typically spent on unpaid caregiving. The discrinination compounds and compounds, sexism and ageism, of course, intersect. Women live longer. We're sicker. And add ageism to it, add ableism to it. That is why the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick are old women of color everywhere.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: You point out some of the structural cultural dimensions, and then there are the racial structures as well. So that agricultural workers, domestic workers don't even have access to social security. So across each of these different categories. Gender and age intersect with the structure of work to create these burdens that get heavier the older we get.

Ashton Applewhite: And the less physical strength we have to carry them, we may still have psychic strength. But we have urbanization, and we have capitalism, of course. That has fragmented society as we don't live in small mixed age groups anymore, and we don't. They didn't do that to get rid of the old people. But just like the invention of the printing press, that was really bad for old people, because we used to be the holders of wisdom. I'm not sorry they invented. reading and writing. These things happen.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Well, when you think about the possibilities of this moment ... we talked a little bit about the worry that it naturalizes sort of the dying off of older people. But also, this moment might open up possibilities. I kind of want to think of it as a black hole, too, to a new future. What's the black hole to the other side that you're hoping to see?

Ashton Applewhite: I would love to see the pandemic be a vehicle for conversations about intersectionality in the broadest sense. Again, because the pandemic affects us all. Because aging affects us all. Because nothing has made manifest so starkly ever before in human history ... that we are all connected and all vulnerable, whether you are rich or poor. The virus is infecting everyone. I am also in a narrower sense keenly interested in addressing in particular the intersection of ageism and ableism. Nobody wants to go anywhere near it for the most part.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And why do you think that? Why do you think it's such an off-topic for so many people?

Ashton Applewhite: Because I think it's at the heart of our darkest fears around aging, which I think is human. No one wants to think that they're going to lose physical or cognitive capacity. Cognitive decline, by the way, is not inevitable. Physical decline is, so it does make us look the scary stuff in the eye. What we know is that no matter what it is, it's less scary once you look at it. The older a person is, the less their age tells you about what they're capable of. Heterogeneity increases with time.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: I think that needs to be emphasized. Say that again. The older-

Ashton Applewhite: ... we are, the more different from one another we become. Every seven-year-old is unique, but they have way more in common physically, developmentally, socially than 17 year-olds. We're way more alike than 47, and so on. And yet we think old people become the elderly. Point number two, let's get rid of the term 'the elderly.' If they said COVID was more dangerous for older people, you wouldn't have all these boomers who are frankly in total age denial. And I wish they wouldn't, because age denial is where ageism gets started. You may not be elderly, whatever that means, but you are older. Acknowledge it, right? Because as long as you're on the hamster wheel of denial, you’ve got to start to deal with it intelligently and get over this sort of reflexive fear and dread of your own future, which is not healthy. So what you have is dual stigma. "I may be disabled, but at least I'm not old. I may be old, but at least I can still run up the stairs, or whatever it is." We all have those things. We cling to them. But think what the disability justice activists, it was disability rights then, and who got the ADA passed. Now, that was largely about mobility. It was largely the work of white men, but it still did a lot of good stuff. They changed disability from a personal misfortune into a social problem.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yes. And a structural feature.

Ashton Applewhite: Structural issue. The problem is not that I'm in a wheelchair. The problem is that-

Kimberlé Crenshaw: You have stairs, right?

Ashton Applewhite: The problem is those stairs there. That's what we need to do around aging. And if you can extrapolate out from that, where are the stairs of COVID? How can we identify those stairs that face all of us and see this at ... take our global vulnerability as a chance to bond with the most vulnerable and tackle it at that elemental level in whatever way is most important to each of us?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah, yeah.

Ashton Applewhite: Age is a universal condition and so is disability. Because we will all age into some form of it, and with age uniquely we are born in a position of less privilege. We're helpless at birth, and we sort of age into maximum privilege, and out of it again. These are powerful ideas with so many ways in. I think it's important to focus on those two things because they affect all genders, all races, all countries.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Everyone.


And how can we take those two universals and build out from there?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: That's beautiful. It's unfortunate, it’s actually a statement about the human condition that it takes something like this to bring us to the recognition of what's obvious, the interconnectedness among all of us, right? This is a continuum in which everybody is on. It's also one in which there is no permanent hierarchy. There's a lot of conversation about ageism within progressive spaces, but most of it focuses on the exclusion of young people. That becomes almost the only way in which we think about the problem rather than actually ... we have to think about appropriate ways of inclusion across the age spectrum. It's not simply reversing one hierarchy or another.

Ashton Applewhite: I think every human being should ideally have equal value. And what we want is a society that acknowledges the very real differences, weaknesses, good things about every stage of life without organizing them into a system of social inequality, right?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: That’s very helpful. I've been struggling through how to think about this moment, and it was very helpful to have someone who's been thinking about the broader issues for a long time and is prepared to help us in this particular moment when all eyes are on this issue right now. So, thank you very much.

Ashton Applewhite: My pleasure. Thank you.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Willie “JR” Fleming is a long-time community leader and human rights defender. His activism and organizing work began with the devastating impacts of the demolition of public housing. Through his work, he was awarded the US Human Rights Builder Award in 2013. JR is also a leading national advocate for women’s ex-offender re-entry program, and has been involved in several successful eviction defenses. JR, welcome to Intersectionality Matters.

JR Fleming: Thank you for having me. Thank you, thank you.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So we’ve been reading reports. So the story we heard last week about how in Chicago nearly 50 housing facilities for low-income seniors were used as polling locations. So first of all, how did you come to find out about the crisis?

JR Fleming: We got a text message that they were closing the senior buildings, they were not gonna allow polling at the senior buildings. I'm like, "Yeah, smart decision. Way to go, Cooke County, Illinois” Then I got another text that said, "You won't believe this." I said, "Hit me." "They're taking them to the senior buildings of the public housing folks." I thought they said no senior facility would be open. But they wasn't counting us.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah. We, our seniors aren't the ones that they're-

JR Fleming: Trying to protect. Just made a hierarchical decision to take into the senior places where low income folks and subsidized housing under HUD benefits lived. They opened them up, exposing them to the vulnerability and risk. Now this is against the objection of the Chicago Board of Elections. We had one guy, Mr. Bill. He said we should have to be faced with an emotional crisis, doing our duty of protecting our own health, right? This is an older guy who works for the Board of Election, who resigned that day, said I'm not doing this. Right? He wanted no parts of this, right? You're not going to say that I discriminated against my people. That's not going to happen, I'm out of here.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow.

JR Fleming: 40 to 60% of the poll workers did not show up for work. All the more reason to call off the election.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-mm-hmm.


But what was most disrespectful was the fact that not only did they push the election, they pushed the polling places into a population of the most vulnerable people, seniors, who everybody can agree don't have adequate heath care with the current coverage they have. And so we felt like, this is the ultimate disrespect. Here you have the Board of Elections saying no, don't do it. Here you have a group that we advocate and organize with, Jane Addams Senior Caucus. Big advocacy group for seniors. Been around a long time. Who said you cannot and should not do this.And they went forth anyway.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow.

JR Fleming: But what they truly, like public housing residents say all the time, quote Michael Jackson, "All I really want to say is, they don't really care about us."

Kimberlé Crenshaw: "Don't really care about us."

JR Fleming: Like, wow. If the writing isn't on the wall now.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: One of the things that seems to be, as you said, the handwriting on the wall, is that in all of the conversation about who's at risk, what people are not willing to say it seems, in mainstream media, is that Black people are at risk. People of color are at risk, older Black people, low-income people of color-

JR Fleming: Older Black. If seniors are at risk, older Black seniors are the most vulnerable of that at-risk group. Given the conditions-

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And I have not heard anybody just say that.

JR Fleming: It’s like, Hurricane Katrina. Here we go again, Hurricane Katrina in America all over again. They're starkly similar, right? You go, "No." This, you've got to get FEMA involved. You have to have HUD involved. There should be a crisis response team in every senior public housing development in America right now. That's the most vulnerable population that might not have children checking on them.That might not have the staff checking on them, right? Where are those workers, right? A lot of them are quarantining and saying I'm not going to work with seniors, right? Our Meals on Wheels program in the City of Chicago is set down. Several hundred workers are not going back to work who traditionally provided senior care in our city program.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow.

JR Fleming: And so I go, absent of these workers who's replacing these workers? Are they sending in CNAs, are they sending in nurses, are they taking these precautions that wasn't taken during Hurricane Katrina.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And so what lessons should we have learned from that? I mean, you were there so you saw firsthand the devastation, not from the natural disaster, but from the unnatural response to the disaster. Many people who ended up dying didn't get killed by the first wave of the hurricane. It was because of the-

JR Fleming: Of the dome.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: The rescue. Yes.

JR Fleming: Yeah, the dome that had been left abandoned. Nobody coming to check on you, emergency responders. And that's what I want to hit on. These emergency responders. Katrina taught us that there should always, on a local level, be an emergency response team. We're starting to see our people left abandoned, like they were left in the homes during New Orleans, right? The seniors in these HUD owned properties, HUD-managed buildings, these Chicago Housing Authority buildings, just don't have the services .

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Right.

JR Fleming: And we wonder when the testings do happen, right? Will it start with seniors, the most vulnerable folks?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yes..

JR Fleming: And if so, would it start with the people in that African-American community who has been most vulnerable? Especially the building that you opened for election day. You know, I see the same look on folks in Chicago's face that I saw in New Orleans. They don't have hope in the government. Definitely not the federal government, I can tell you that right now. And it's not choosing no sideS. I live in a Democratic state, city, and a county that opened polling places in senior facilities. So I definitely don't take sides.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah.

JR Fleming: But on a federal level, they don't see that response necessary. Two, they don't see the coordination of local and federal government. What they see is a lot of blame placing, right? And so we're seeing the same response as Katrina, none.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So what would you have wanted to have seen happen after Katrina to correct for the mistakes that were made in Katrina so nothing like this could ever happen again?

JR Fleming: Well some of the stuff, like the Katrina commission, right? I would have wanted to see some type of contingency plan put in place. Because the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois was intricately involved, were relocating folks from Louisiana. We would have loved to see the city get through that bill quicker than they did. The federal government back and forth, Democrats and Republican. which stop resources for getting in in a timely fashion, similar to what we're seeing today.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: o it ranges from incompetent. Well first of all, lack of concern and care.

JR Fleming: That's right. Let's say that.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: You were irresponsible, you didn't leave, so that's your problem. Which is a little bit like, well you know, just self protect, without understanding the vulnerability of some of our population. Then, bureaucratic back and forth between whose problem is this. So we've seen that happening now, you know, with the President saying, "Well it's the state problem", and the states saying, "You need to help us." And then there's just the basic incompetence, even when they do decide to do something. Like the buses that took four days to get there. What I worry about now is, number one, we are in no better position to rescue vulnerable Black people and we may not have the images of it, because this is happening in their homes. It's happening where they live. Then there's not attention being placed on the lives that are being put at risk by this colossal failure to anticipate and to be prepared to lift up the most vulnerable.

There's so much of this that's deja vu. What is your sense of what has unfolded there that can be replicated by other community activists across the country who are concerned about their elders and senior living facilities?

JR Fleming: Well we have organizations out here that are making sure they drop off food to folks, we have organizations out here that coordinate with elderly care providers to collect data around it. To make sure everybody got the adequate insurance, and resources, and necessities during this quarantine and shelter in place order. I think, just folks coming together, and most importantly, data collecting. We can't rely on the media and the government data. It always will paint a rosy picture, right?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: m-hmm.

JR Fleming: I think we have to get out here to collect that data and figure out a way to properly monitor the population that's really dying. Because you're hearing the cases of how many deaths, and we are asking for data around it. S

We've got to know how vulnerable our people really are.

And so groups like ours and others are effectively monitoring this, and we're keeping political pressure on them. We want to know. And we are holding our elected officials who depend so much on that senior vote, since they say young folks don't vote.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yes.

JR Fleming: We are holding elected officials accountable.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm.

JR Fleming: Because this is definitely a base of theirs that they lean on around election season. And that we have mutual interests in our seniors, right?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm.

JR Fleming: And so that's some of the organizing work that is going on. I have a friend who has a relative in one of those facilities, right?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm.

JR Fleming: And one of his greatest worries is, that he goes check on his grandma, he can't tell him nothing. And just the disrespect, he said, of folks going in there without rubber gloves, the mask on, and covering up.

You know, he says he goes in, says he sprays the door handles himself. Sprays the elevator, sprays down her door, wipes down her door. Inside and out on the knobs. Right, he goes in there and he makes sure he does the cleaning, right?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm.

JR Fleming: We're demanding that the federal government for the senior buildings and the low income buildings, put out a contract that will allow for the sanitizing, the special sanitizing of all these properties. All public facilities, not just public housing, all public facilities. We want to see people that care. I would love to see the EPA up in some of these senior facilities. What other viruses might be laying dormant in these facilities for the lack of cleaning and care?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And here is an example of where the low standards actually then become lethal, right? You have low standards because it's public, because the population is generally seen as powerless. Until, in the election cycle like now, they're relied upon. It reminds me of that Stevie Wonder song about, we see you come election time. You know, we wanted to ask you what inspires you to do this work? What was behind your decision to commit your life to this issue, this advocacy around housing?

JR Fleming: My mother ran a program in Chicago. She worked you under the late great Mayor Harold Washington. So I kept on asking her, what got you doing this political, this civic engagement, this organizing and community? Why do you care so much? She said, "It's about your whole future.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm.

JR Fleming: And so when I had children, I’m a father of 12

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Oh my goodness!

JR Fleming: I do this for my children. My children's future meant the most to me. I watched public housing get demolished and dispossession during my generation, and I had to ask myself the question, if it looked like this for me, how would it look for my children's future? And same thing with COVID-19, right? If they're doing this now, what will they be doing to my children's future.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And what would your message be to younger people who may not have on their radar the need to or the imperative behind advocating for seniors in communities of color?

JR Fleming: It's called karma, right? What goes around comes around. And if we aren't putting our best foot forward to help the elderly and the seniors in our race, in our community, then we can't expect the same when we're going to age. We're aging as we go. I have been blessed with great children, great brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, nieces, and nephews. I've been blessed. And if we take care of those today, the young ones will take care of us tomorrow.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: What a beautiful thing. Well with your having 12, maybe you can spare some of them for me, because I don't have any. So maybe you can send some of them.

JR Fleming: They love daddy too much. They're not going away. They're around. You know, my boys work construction with me. My sons actually work with me to fix up houses for homeless women and children. We were taking them over years ago. We used to take over vacant homes, fix them up for homeless women and children.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow.

JR Fleming: My 18 year was seven when he first went down to New Orleans with me. Seven, eight, and nine, he was down there. Seven, eight, nine, and ten.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: This is in his blood. He's-

JR Fleming: Oh yeah, they march with me. I violated all type of labor laws having my children march. I wanted them to see first hand. It ain't just what daddy is do, you going to go see what daddy do.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah.

JR Fleming: Right. And so this is in they blood. And he talks about Katrina more than anybody. Like, I still can't believe this, man.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And what's he saying about this now, having seen that from such an early age.

JR Fleming: And so we talked about this. And he remembers when he was young. Because he's like, you've got to go out there with your people and help save people too again, huh? Just like in New Orleans.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: That's part of the intergenerational consciousness, it gets created intergenerationally. You know, through that connection. Tell us just a little bit about the work that you did turning houses for moms and their kids.

JR Fleming: Well, you know, it was 2009. We were at the height of the economic crisis. We called it human rice crisis, they called it a recession.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm.

JR Fleming: We had all these auto industries closing down, a bunch of teachers being put out of work. We just had all of this doom and gloom. The economy crashes, people is out of work, student debt is piling up. Just, you can imagine. I started to see a lot of the young white folks who had student debts come home. And their parents lost their jobs. And they were protesting because they didn't have nowhere to work, nowhere to live. And I say, if it's messed up for them, it's way messed up for us. So let me do some investigation.

And I started to look in our community and noticed that wait, they turned out public housing with Black folks with affordable rent, they've taken homes from Black hard working folks who work. Black, so called middle class, losing their homes to foreclosure, no fault of their own. And nobody's doing nothing. So we say how can we help the most vulnerable? Every agency, every committee, every body of government, local and national, nothing happened. And so I'm a student of history. I'll say, well this happened back in the '30s when they was taking over vacant homes, fixing them up, moving homeless people in, during the great depression. Well let's make history repeat itself. No need to reinvent the wheel. So we decided one day, this young lady Martha Biggs, four children sleeping in the van, in the winter of Chicago came to a meeting and I just had enough. I got together with some street tribe organizers, not gang members, street tribe organizers, and said this is what we going to do. We're going to take over vacant homes, fix them up, and all the people they putting off of section 8. They evict them because the landlord got foreclosed on.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm.

JR Fleming: To no fault of the section 8 folks. They didn't know no better. They came from public housing, thought they moved in a building that got inspected by the Housing Authority. Our people was falling through the cracks. I said not no more. We said not no more. Let's go fix up some vacant home and move our people in them. If the government got a problem with it, oh well. Until they can figure out a better plan, this is what we doing. And so it gained a lot of support. I've got to shout out African-American women during this time and still to this day. I was raised by 98 percent African-American women. And so when we begin to take over houses for women and children, a lot of sisters came to our aid. A lot of sisters. More sisters than brothers.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: And why do you think it was more sisters who showed up?

JR Fleming: They're naturally conscious. I mean, this has been in existence since the '60s. Because of sexism in America, the Civil Rights Movement painted a picture with mostly men doing this. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. If you're a true historian and history buff, and particularly in the African-American, or the African Diaspora, you would know that it was the sisters who made some of the biggest monumental moves. Rosa Parks, ring a bell? And public housing, women make up most of the leases. So I think the Black women in my life gave me a sense of responsibility and duty. And so for me, growing up, fighting in public housing across the country, not just Chicago. Atlanta, New Orleans, D.C., it was always powerful Black women. And I will always ask the courts where the brothers at. Imagine if we got involved. The street tribes, the knowledgeable brothers, the academics. We'd be a force to reckon with. So that's why we did all of that.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: So what would have to happen, what would be your hope coming out of this to see this be a community-wide thing, where men are as involved in the housing crisis, and the elder crisis, as the women are?

JR Fleming: I think it's happening now. I think COVID-19, it's just a reason for more folks to come together, and that's what I've seen a lot of young men talk about. Checking up on their moms, older people in their family, I think it's happening. I won't say that we're waiting for something. I think a lot of stuff is happening, it just don't probably get the natural media attention that it should right now.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Mm-hmm. Well thank you for allowing us to get a window.

JR Fleming: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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